Joseph Campbell’s Life and Work


Joseph Campbell. 1990. The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work. Novato, California: New World Library.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those who are not writers, the Hero’s Journey is an emotional outline used in many novels and screen plays today based on tales dating back to ancient times. My novella project over the past year uses this outline, but I did not know where it came from until I learned about Joseph Campbell.


The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work is a memoir of Joseph Campbell based on conversations with him over the years. Campbell became famous after a 1988 PBS series by Bill Moyers: Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, which can be viewed on Amazon Prime.[1]

This book plows some of the same ground as that series, but was fashioned from interviews in a shorter, one-hour film, the Hero’s Journey, by associate producer Phil Cousineau at producer Stuart L. Brown’s request. This genesis explains, for example, why the memoir is structured with chapters beginning with background followed by questions and answers. It also explains why the text contains numerous photographs taken at all stages of Campbell’s life and career.

Background and Education

Joseph John Campbell (1904—1987) taught literature at Sarah Lawrence College (an all-girl’s school in Yonkers, New York) who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He received his BA and MA in English literature at Columbia University,[2] but he was also more widely read, educated, and traveled than practically anyone in our times. Campbell’s encyclopedic understanding of literature, key authors, and alternative religions help explain why so much attention has been paid to a professor from an obscure little college.


 Campbell’s story is told in eight chapters precede by extensive front matter (foreword, preface, introduction, and acknowledgments) and followed by equally voluminous back matter (epilog, list of books, bibliography, contributors, illustration credits, index, about, and about the foundation). The eight chapters are:

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. The Road of Trials
  3. The Vision Quest
  4. The Meeting with the Goddess
  5. The Boon
  6. The Magic Flight
  7. The Return Threshold
  8. The Master of Two Worlds (v)

For those unfamiliar, the chapter titles offer a variation on the hero’s journey, suggesting Campbell’s life itself fit the template.

Mystery of the Man

One gets the impression from reading this memoir that Campbell, the cultural Catholic, never understood the distinction between religion and theology. Religion is the study of human kind, while theology is the study of God. For all his sophistication and knowledge of world mythologies, he stayed focused on the creature and never saw the creator. His core belief from Janinas Hinduism that there are many paths up the mountain to god when, in fact, there are none—God must come down to us.[3]

Campbell’s focus on mythology never ventures outside the bounds of religion into theology. In his introduction, Cousineau observes:

“So as Albert Einstein pursued a unified field theory for the energies of the outer realms, Joseph Campbell dedicated himself to forging a kind of unified field theory of the equally prodigious energies of the inner realm, the personification of which we call ‘the gods.’” (xx)

By giving credence to the concept of the equality of religions, Campbell played a key role in the emergence of the New Age movement championed by Hollywood through people like George Lucas (Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and a major theme in the postmodern critique of Christianity. Star Wars explicitly employed the Hero’s Journey in its structure and Indiana Jones wandered the earth digging up Judeo-Christian totems, such as the Ark of the Covenant, thought by some to have magical powers.[4]

Role of Myth

Separating Campbell from the wake created by his studies, he added much to our understanding of myth. He sees my having mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedological functions (191).

The mystical function opens up the heart and mind to transcendence. In giving God a name and referring to his goodness, he sees Judaism reducing its mythological origins to ethics, a unique cosmology (192). By structuring myth to a particular time, science is also a kind of religion (193-194). Interestingly, the role of time in Judeo-Christian culture and science links the two, science is unlikely to evolve under other religions that stand outside time in their mythologies.

Much like the mystical and cosmological functions are hard to separate in this discussion so are the sociological and pedological function. The author’s here write: “The myth guides you through the rituals, initiation rites, fertility rites, puberty rites, funeral rites.” (191) One suspects that the authors do not fully understand Campbell when he employs such distinctions, a general problem in interfaith studies.


Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work is a biography written by producers of a film, the Hero’s Journey, which chronicled the life and work of Joseph Campbell. They lay out Campbell’s life, writings, and interviews with great flair and numerous photographs. Those interested in the origin of ideas and Campbell’s work will love this book.




[3] When Genesis 1:1 tells of God creating heaven and earth, we know that God stands outside of the time and space that he created. As creatures, we are locked in time and space, and cannot approach God on our own. This is the essence of transcendence.

[4] Mixing entertainment with religious icons weaves a new mythology, which both places this mythology at the service of commercial interests and chips away at the credibility of people’s underlying faith. While Star Wars has been belittled as nothing more than space cowboys, even the idea of de-linking cowboys from their historical context (the American western experience) places this new mythology outside of time. Remember that the Judeo-Christian worldview, unlike other religions, takes historical time seriously, which places ethical demands on its adherents.

A mythology standing outside of time requires fewer ethical demands and better serves the interests of masters rather than slaves. Nietzsche, you may recall, studied the classics and denigrated Christianity as a slave religion, which helped lay the intellectual foundation for master-race theory later picked up by Hitler’s Third Reich. While we cannot lay such a heavy burden at the feet of Joseph Campbell, the point here is that playing with mythology and denigrating religion is serious business with many, unintended consequences.

Joseph Campbell’s Life and Work

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 2

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you believe that modern media is irrelevant to your religious life, then ask yourself a couple of questions.  For example, why are most sermons about 20 minutes? and where do you go when you get upset? Twenty minute is about the amount of time remaining in a 30 minutes television show after the time devoted to advertising is subtracted out. If you go shopping when you are upset, then consider what your grandmother might have done—50 years ago it was common to go to a chapel and pray on stressful occasions.[2]  Today, if someone wanted to pray in a chapel, the door would likely be locked.

These changes did not happen overnight and they were not accidental.

In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks talks about the contribution of dark art of marketing to cultural changes that we have seen. Borrowing from the work of Joseph Campbell, Sacks describes the purpose of myth is to help us grow up because we yearn for maturation (85). But mature adults (self-responsible, free agents) threaten marketers who typically prefer us to remain adolescents where we suspended in an immature state dwelling on emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity. In this immature state, we are meant to feel inadequate and incomplete where consumption of product X, Y, Z can presumably make us complete again (86).

Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark.

Sacks writes:

“all story-based marketing campaigns contain an underlying moral of the story and supply a ritual that is suggested to react to that moral.” (89)

Inadequacy marketing accordingly has two basic steps. In step 1, the moral always begins with “You are not…and plays off of at least one negative emotion: greed…fear…lust.” (89) The purpose in step 1 is to create anxiety (93). In step 2, the ritual proposed is implicitly or explicitly to shop and buy a particular product—pictured as a magical experience.

One of the classic success stories of inadequacy marketing is the Listerine (an early mouth wash) ad campaign. In 1922, Listerine was sold as a “good surgical antiseptic” (91). Sales were pretty minimal. This ad campaign introduced a young woman, “Sad Edna”, who lacked attention, sex appeal, and was basically inadequate for reasons that no one would tell her—she had halitosis (bad breath) which was ruining her social life (the moral of the story; 142). That is, until she discovered Listerine (the magical solution). In this case, the Sad Edna campaign both raised the fear of inadequacy and successfully introduced Listerine as the hero of the story.

Sacks sees inadequacy marketing as pervasive and destructive because drives us to pursue culturally and environmentally destructive consumption. In place of inadequacy marketing, Sacks offers “empowerment advertising” which follows John Powers’ three basic principles (1875):  (1) Be interesting, (2) Tell the truth, and (3) Live the truth (or change so you can; 103-107). An example of an ad by John Powers for neckties read: “not as good as they look, but they’re good enough—25 cents.” The campaign was an instant success, in part, because people found an honest ad refreshing and the ties available sold promptly (105).

Sacks devotes the remainder of his book to outlying how to use empowerment advertising.

Two basic ingredients of empowerment advertising are Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. Before I close, let me define what he means.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” starts with the proposition that people desire to obtain self-actualization as a life goal, this goal may not be obtained until more basic needs are met. Thus, he posits a pyramid of needs with the most basic needs at the bottom (physiological needs) and self-actualization at the top. Sacks pictures the five categories: physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization (ordered from bottom to top; 130).  While inadequacy marketing focuses on the bottom of the pyramid, empowerment marketing focuses on the top.

Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” outlines the basic plot of many successful stories and films in a repeating circle: 1. The ordinary world, 2. A call to adventure, 3. Refusing the call, 4. Meeting a mentor, 5. Crossing the threshold, 6. Tests, allies, and Enemies, 7. Approaching the dragon’s den, 8. The ordeal, 9. Seizing the treasure, 10. The journey home, 11. Resurrection, 12. Return with the Treasure (148). While the hero’s journey may seem long and drawn out, numerous famous films follows this formula. For example, films that follow the hero’s journey include: Star Wars (1977), The Patriot (2000), and World War Z (2013).  So does the biblical story of Moses.

The hero’s journey is interesting in empowerment marketing because in order to succeed the hero has to grow at least enough to complete the journey—a type of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Sacks, the hero in question is a “brand hero” who exemplifies your firm’s ideal customer and who is not, as in inadequacy marketing, a product. This brand hero is not a helpless consumer, but a mature and contributing citizen (149-150). The brand hero in the case of Apple, for example, is a creative employee who breaks out of the usual mold and may buy a Mac, but the Mac is not portrayed as a “magical solution”.

 Jonah Sacks’ book, Winning the Story Wars, is a great read and a helpful guide to understanding our recent culture wars as played out in film, online, and in our political campaigns. I read this book to improve my writing skills, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what “all the shouting is about” in our society today.


Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] @JonahSachs. @DrewBeam. @HarvardBiz.

[2] In Hispanic films, people still consult a priest and/or visit a chapel to pray, but not in English language films. The last example of a chapel visit in film that I remember was in the film Home Alone (1990) starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern.

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the online world that surrounds us, we are bombarded with messages from morning to night: email, spam, pop-ups, video, print media, text-ads, robo-calls, and even old-fashioned, telephone solicitors. Because messages bombard us from morning to night, only the most sophisticated ads get and hold our attention. At the heart of these winning ads is usually a mythical story.


Against this backdrop, in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks writes:

“We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths, and we are now trying to find new ones—we’re people and that’s what people without myths do.

These myths will shape our future, how we live, what we do, and what we buy. They will touch all of us. But not all of us get to write them. Those that do have tremendous power.” (6)

Among those competing to gain this power through telling such stories are authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Because it is not clear whose stories will dominate our attention (17), the recent election is a reminder that a lot is at stake.

In this environment of competing myth-making, oral tradition has become increasingly important because social media facilitates immediate feedback between story tellers and their audience, reminiscent of a time when story tellers gathered with their audiences primarily around a campfire. Because “all wars are story wars” (29), Sacks sees story telling as critical, not only to marketers who can either lift us up or tear us down, but also to citizens who may find themselves manipulated into fighting real wars.

Jonah Sacks

So who is Jonah Sacks? Sack describes himself as a: “story expert, filmmaker and entrepreneur”. His back cover and website includes this description:

“As the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of major brands and causes break through the media din with unforgettable [ad] campaigns. His work on legendary viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff series have brought key social issues to the attention of more than 65 million people online. A constant innovator, his studio’s websites and stories have taken top honors three times at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”


Sacks divides his book into two parts and eight chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue:

Part One: The Broken World of Storytelling

  1. The Story Wars are All Around Us
  2. The Five Deadly Sins
  3. The Myth Gap
  4. Marketing’s Dark Art

Part Two: Shaping the Future

  1. Tell the Truth, Part I: The Art of Empowerment Marketing
  2. Tell the Truth, Part II: The Hero’s Journey
  3. Be Interesting: Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars
  4. Live the Truth. (vii)

The Five Deadly Sins

Once you buy into the idea that stories matter and matter a lot, Sacks starts by instructing us on what not to do—the five deadly sins—which are vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry (35). Vanity arises as an early problem because “when you love what you’re selling” … “you assume everyone else will too” (36).  Sacks uses an unforgettable example when he compares the acceptance speeches of John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004—Kerry talks mostly about John Kerry, while Bush talks about what “we” can do (37-38). The contrast could not be greater. The other four sins are equally hard to avoid and quick to kill the credibility of a story.

Understanding Myth

Sacks repeatedly returns to myth as an important component in story telling. He describes myth as neither true not false, but existing in a separate reality (59). He attributes three ingredients in myth: symbolic thinking, having three elements tied together—story, explanation, and meaning, and ritual (59-61). For example, in Genesis Sacks sees creation as a myth with these three elements:

“STORY:               God created the world in seven days and gave man dominion over it.

EXPLANATION: This is how everything we see around us came into existence.

MEANING:          So God deserves our gratitude and obedience.” (60)

An important observation drives much of Sacks’ own storyline:

“a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” (61)

Effect of Rationalism

In our “rationalist modern society” (62) where people refuse to think symbolically, the myth gap zaps meaning and leaves people in an intractable state of hopelessness. “Forward-thinking religious leaders, scientists, and entertainers” who attempt to “reunify story, explanation, and meaning in their work” are quickly pushed out of the mainstream (63). Thus, the myth gap remains and people suffer.

Jonah Sacks’ book “Winning the Story Wars” is a non-fiction, page turner. The hugely fascinating illustrations are by Drew Beam. [2] In part 2 of this review, I will examine in more depth Sacks’ exploration of modern advertising and why we care.


[1] @JonahSachs.

[2] @DrewBeam.

Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

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